16: Pawn Sacrifice

Pawn Sacrifice tells the story of one of the greatest chess players of all time—Bobby Fischer. How do you make the game of chess into an interesting story? With Bobby Fischer’s life, you don’t need to stretch it too far.

Despite its low numbers, critics raved about the film. With a great cast that includes Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber, the movie tackled some tough challenges and for those that did see it, the reviews would suggest, Edward Zwick did a great job.

Let’s dive into the world of chess champions as we learn about Bobby Fischer and the world of Pawn Sacrifice.

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Transcript

Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Robert James Fischer was born in Chicago on March 9th, 1943 to Hans-Gerhardt and Regina Fischer. Hans-Gerhardt was a German biophysicist and Regina was a teacher and nurse. Although Bobby’s birth certificate said Hans-Gerhardt was his father, there’s a lot of people who think his real father was a Hungarian-Jewish physicist by the name of Paul Nemenyi.

Right away we’re swept up into some of the historical ties in Pawn Sacrifice, as the movie indicates that in Bobby Fischer’s early years, he never really knew who his father was. There’s truth to this, and quite frankly we still don’t know for sure.

Another element that’s hinted at in the movie is Bobby’s mother’s communist beliefs. This, too, is true—and may certainly have been a big influence on Bobby’s upbringing.

After being convinced to move to Moscow to study medicine by the famous geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller, Regina did so. That’s where she met Hans-Gerhardt. The two were married in 1933, and five years later the two had Bobby’s sister, Joan. In the movie, the younger version of Joan Fischer is played by Sophie Nelisse, while an older Joan is played by Lily Rabe.

Since Regina was Jewish, rising anti-Semitism caused Regina to leave Hans-Gerhardt in Moscow and take Joan to Paris. Of course, being in Paris in the late 1930s didn’t end up being a great place, either. When Nazi Germany started to threaten attack, Regina returned to the United States.

Regina once told a social worker the last time she saw Hans-Gerhardt was in 1939. Since Bobby was born in 1943, that’s why there’s controversy over who his real father was. Of course, Regina would also tell the same social worker that she had a fling with Hans-Gerhardt in 1942, and that’s when Bobby was conceived.

On the other hand, we also know of an affair between Regina and Paul Nemenyi in 1942. We also know that Paul made monthly child support payments for Bobby until Paul died in 1952.

Officially, Hans-Gerhardt was Bobby’s father. Truthfully, we simply don’t know. We do know there’s no proof that Hans-Gerhardt never entered the United States, because there’s documentation of his being refused entry due to his Communist sympathies.

So perhaps that’s why, in the movie, there’s a scene where a young Bobby, played by Aiden Lovekamp, screams at his mother—”Where’s my father?” to which she says she doesn’t know.

Growing up without a father and a mother with known Communist ties right after World War II had to have meant some tense moments. As Bobby was growing up, everything around him was laying out the evils of Communism. Was his mother evil? Was she the enemy? Even though Regina did her best to raise her children, all of this tension as the Cold War began shortly after World War II had to have had an effect on Bobby’s formative years.

At the very least, it heightened Bobby’s sensitivities to Communism.

The movie doesn’t really show how Bobby picked up the game of chess. Instead, the first time we see him playing it in the movie, he’s alone in his room trying to go to sleep. But he can’t sleep, because his mom has guests over and they’re making noise. So he picks up the chess board sitting beside his bed and ponders it thoughtfully.

In truth, of course, Bobby didn’t randomly pick up chess from a conveniently-placed chess board on his nightstand. Bobby was introduced to chess at the age of six, when he and his sister got the game’s instructions from a chess set they bought at a candy store. And since they didn’t have much, playing chess quickly became a pastime for Joan and Bobby. But then Joan lost interest, so Bobby tried to get his mom to play. When she wouldn’t, Bobby did have to play games of chess with himself as it shows in the movie.

Bobby spent so much time playing chess by himself, locked away in his room, that his mom started to get worried. In 1950, when Bobby was eight, she tried to put an ad in the paper to see if she could find someone Bobby’s age who might play chess with him. The newspaper rejected the ad. They couldn’t figure out how to place an ad for what essentially amounted to a friend for an eight-year-old.

Instead of publishing the ad, they forwarded it onto a man named Hermann Helms. Hermann was a popular chess player, and a member of the United States Chess Hall of Fame. The newspaper thought he might be able to help. And he did.

Hermann set Bobby up to play in a simultaneous exhibition against the master chess player Max Pavey. A simultaneous exhibition is when one really good chess player plays against a bunch of different people at the same time. While the movie shows Bobby doing this, and he certainly did later in his career, Bobby’s first entrance into major competitive chess was as one of those playing against Max.

And Bobby lost. But he held on for a full fifteen minutes, something most of the others playing against Max failed to do. He drew enough attention that one of the onlookers, a man named Carmine Nigro decided to help teach Bobby. Carmine is played by Conrad Pla in the movie, and much of that sequence where Carmine is teaching Bobby is true. Well, the details are made up, but the gist of it is true. Carmine was extremely instrumental in the development of young Bobby Fischer.

The movie introduces Father Bill Lombardy, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who is someone Bobby selects as his second—someone to play with him and help train him for tournaments.

In truth, it didn’t happen that way. It was Carmine Nigro who introduced Bobby to Bill Lombardy. Bill, who was a former Catholic priest and a chess grandmaster himself, started coaching Bobby when he was 11.

Just before his 15th birthday, Bobby became the youngest to win the U.S. Championship. Doing this made him the second-highest rated player in the U.S., trailing only Samuel Reshevsky—someone he defeated to win the championship. This qualified him for international exposure, and Bobby went on to become the youngest person to ever qualify for the Candidates Tournament. The Candidates is a tournament organized by the world chess organization, or FIDE, to help determine the finalists for the World Chess Championship.

In 1952, Bobby got a scholarship to Brooklyn Community Woodward. He was awarded this purely on his chess talent and “astronomically high IQ”. But school seemed to only get in the way for Bobby. He ended up dropping out at the age of 16 so he could focus on chess.

While it isn’t mentioned in the movie, in 1960, Bobby played against Boris Spassky, which is Liev Schreiber’s character in the film. While Bobby tied Boris for overall points at the Mar del Plata Tournament in Argentina, Bobby’s only loss in the tournament was to Boris. This was the start of a friendship between the two chess stars.

Although Bobby had a plethora of great tournaments in his career, the movie Pawn Sacrifice really focuses on a single tournament. It’s the World Chess Championship in 1972, and certainly the biggest of Bobby’s career—arguably the biggest chess match of all time.

The movie makes it seem like there’s more at stake than just chess. In the 1970s, the Cold War is still in full force, and the movie makes note that the Soviet Union takes pride in its chess stars. There’s few games better than chess at exposing intellectual advantage, and the Soviet Union boasts its superiority over the United States.

All of this in the movie is true. While a world championship in any sort of sport or game is a great feat in and of itself, there was a lot more than just a chess tournament at stake. For years, the Soviet Union had an upper hand in the game of chess and dominated the world.

At the top of their long list of chess stars was the World Chess Championship’s defending champion, Boris Spassky. In 1972, he was the undisputed world champion for the past three years—a title he held as the latest in a string of chess masters from the Soviet Union dating back to 1948. So when the 1972 World Chess Championship started in Reykjavik, Iceland, everyone expected Boris to continue the Soviet Union’s dominance.

The actual World Chess Championship was structured very similar to the movie. Unofficially, there have been chess championships since 1490. Starting in 1886, an official World Chess Championship was put in place and since then, determining the world champion in chess meant more than just one game. Like the World Series in baseball or the NBA Finals in basketball, the World Chess Championship was a series of games. Whomever came out on top after the series would be the new world champion.

The movie shows the first game as Boris follows through on everyone’s expectations—defeating Bobby.

This is true. The game was close to being a draw, but for the 30th move Boris pulled off something no one anticipated as he trapped Bobby’s bishop. Bobby’s miscalculation of his opponent cost him the game, and on July 11th, 1972, the World Chess Championship opened with a 1-0 score in favor of Boris Spassky.

Something interesting happens next in the movie. Bobby goes crazy—well, it seems like he’s going crazy. He’s distracted by the cameras. The audience. Everyone and everything is making him anxious. Toby Maguire does a great job of portraying a very delicate Bobby Fischer as he goes off on Bill Lombardy and Paul Marshall, who’s played by Michael Stuhlbarg in the movie.

While many of the specific details were fictionalized for the movie, the core of this is actually true. Bobby insisted that the cameras were removed from the match. Of course, this was something everyone in the world was watching. The United States was pitted against the Soviet Union in a battle for intelligence. There’s no way they’d remove the cameras. So Bobby didn’t show up. Game two was a forfeit, making the score 2-0 in favor of Boris Spassky.

There were still dozens of games left, but everyone was getting the sense that the momentum was in favor of Boris. Actually, the momentum was in favor of Boris before the games even started—his quick jump to a 2-0 lead only proved what everyone already knew. Things weren’t looking good for Bobby. Although this wasn’t shown in the movie, he went so far as to go to the airport in Reykjavik, getting a ticket on the next plane out of Iceland.

Bill Lombardy talked him out of leaving.

Pawn Sacrifice mentions a ping pong room in the back, where it’s really quiet. Toby Maguire’s version of Bobby Fischer says the only way he’ll play again is if it’s in this room. A room where it’s quiet, there’s no audience and no camera.

That’s actually true. Bobby insisted on moving the tournament to a small room in the back. Boris, who had played Bobby before and respected him, didn’t want to defeat Bobby by default. So he agreed to move the match.

In game three, just like in the movie, Bobby made a comeback. He initiated an attack on the chess board that caught Boris off guard. By the 18th move in the game, the match was over. Although the movie shows the match finishing right away, in truth the match was adjourned for the day without a winner being declared. Boris didn’t resign until the next day, after he had time to realize he had been beaten.

It was the first time in his career that Bobby Fischer had beaten Boris Spassky. Not only was this a huge motivational boost for Bobby, but it was huge for the United States. Sure, the championship wasn’t over, but Bobby had beaten Boris! Even if for a day, the United States was reveling in the victory!

The movie makes a little mention of game four. There’s a quick cut where someone mentions the game is a draw, and that’s about it. The outcome was true, and in reality the game probably wouldn’t have made for thrilling Hollywood affair on the big screen. So it makes sense why it was cut from the film.

Game four went to move 45 when the game was finally called a draw. Half a point to both Bobby and Boris, making the overall series score 2 1/2 for Boris and 1 1/2 for Bobby.

Like game four, the movie doesn’t really show how Bobby wins in game five. It shows he won, but not really how. In truth, the win in game five came after Bobby defeated Boris in 27 moves. The momentum was shifting as Bobby tied the overall score at 2 1/2 points each.

The final game shown in the movie is game six. In the movie it’s an intense battle on the chess board. Bobby starts off with, as the movie says, “another move he’s never played.” All of a sudden, Bobby abandoned his traditional Sicilian opening—no one can figure out what he’s doing. The movie doesn’t really explain what’s going on as Liev Schreiber’s portrayal of Boris Spassky slowly gets out of his chair and starts clapping.

Again, a lot of this is true. For only the third time in a competitive game, Bobby moved pawn to C4. It was an opening no one expected. Boris didn’t really know what to make of it. Still, Boris stuck with his own game plan of what’s called the Tartakower’s Defense, a strategy Boris had used numerous times before and had never lost with.

The game got intense as Bobby and Boris went back and forth. Bobby would attack, but Boris would defend successfully. Finally, after the 21st move, Bobby had the upper hand. He continued a relentless attack. On the 41st movie, Bobby moved his queen to F4.

Boris paused. He looked at the board. Then, just like in the movie, he rose and applauded Bobby. The moves on the board had caught Boris off-guard, but this move had caught Bobby off-guard. No one claps for their opponents. And yet here was Boris Spassky, the Soviet Union’s defending world champion, clapping for the United States’ Bobby Fischer.

Bobby would later say of Boris that he was, “a true sportsman”.

This is where the movie ends, and why not? It’s a great one to end on. There’s a few scenes after this match where Bobby is in a car and closes his chess set—seemingly stopping the obsession he’s had since the beginning of the movie.

In truth, though, this wasn’t the end.

After game six, Bobby and Boris ended in a draw by perpetual check in game seven. Then, in game eight, Bobby won again, giving him a 5-3 lead. Game nine was another draw, then Bobby won again in game ten. Boris rebounded in game eleven, defeating Bobby. Game twelve was another draw. Game thirteen saw Bobby raise his lead with a victory. The score was 8-5. Then in the next seven matches, Bobby and Boris ended in draws. Each time earning both competitors half a point. Essentially, once Bobby had the lead, he didn’t need to win each match—he only needed to hang onto his lead.

The final game in the 1972 World Chess Championship was the 21st game. Bobby was playing black, and used a Sicilian line that no one had ever played before. This surprised Boris, and he didn’t know how to respond. After 41 moves, it was getting late so the game was adjourned. This was August 31st, and the game was scheduled to resume the next day. This time it was Boris who didn’t show. Instead of returning to the game, Boris called in his resignation. The game—the tournament was over.

On September 1st, 1972, Bobby Fischer snatched the crown from the Soviet Union when he was officially crowned the eleventh World Champion!

At the very end of the movie, it says Bobby disappeared from public view and was even arrested for vagrancy in 1980.

Sadly, this is true. Well, the date is wrong, but the concept is true.

After winning the championship, Bobby was a hero in the United States. But he seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. He didn’t play any more tournaments. He played three games against MIT’s Greenblatt, a computer program, in 1977—he won them all.

He wasn’t arrested in 1980, but on May 26th, 1981, Bobby was arrested because he matched the description of someone who had just robbed a bank in nearby Pasadena, California. While he did claim to be injured during the arrest like the movie says, Bobby was held for two days. He was then released on $1,000 bail. He claimed his arrest was a “set up”.

After his arrest, Bobby lived with a chess grandmaster, Peter Biyiasas. During this time, Peter played Bobby multiple times at home. Peter would later talk about the games they played at his home saying about Bobby, “He was too good. There was no use in playing him. It wasn’t interesting. I was getting beaten, and it wasn’t clear to me why. It wasn’t like I made this mistake or that mistake. It was like I was being gradually outplayed, from the start. He wasn’t taking any time to think. The most depressing thing about it is that I wasn’t even getting out of the middle game to an endgame. I don’t ever remember an endgame. He honestly believes there is no one for him to play, no one worthy of him. I played him, and I can attest to that.”

In 1992, Bobby Fischer came back into the public’s eye when he agreed to play Boris Spassky again. This match was in Belgrade, Yugoslavia with millions of dollars going to the winner. Bobby won with a final line score of ten wins, five losses and fifteen draws.

Unfortunately for Bobby, the country of Yugoslavia was under sanctions restricting any sort of economic activities. Basically, the United States wouldn’t allow for anyone to make money in Yugoslavia as per George H.W. Bush’s Executive Order 12810. Bobby rejected this, spitting on the order in front of the press. So, the United States turned on their former chess champion and put out a warrant for his arrest.

Because of this, Bobby didn’t want to return to the United States. Even though he had been a hero in the U.S. just a couple decades earlier, now he would be arrested as soon as he set foot on U.S. soil. Without a country to call home, Bobby bounced around. He lived in the Philippines for a couple years, then he moved to Japan. While he was in Japan, he was arrested for using a U.S. passport that was no longer valid. It had been revoked due to his violation of the Yugoslavia sanctions.

While Bobby was held in a Japanese cell, Boris Spassky wrote a letter to the then-United States President George H.W. Bush. In the letter, Boris petitioned on Bobby’s behalf, asking for mercy and charity. If Bobby wasn’t to be released, Boris asked to President Bush “to put me in the same cell with Bobby Fischer…with a chess set.”

Bobby was not released.

Bobby tried to renounce his United States citizenship, since this would mean he wouldn’t be subject to the Yugoslavian sanctions. That didn’t work. He tried to become a German citizen, since his father was from Germany. That didn’t work. Then, he tried to apply for Icelandic citizenship.

In 2005, Bobby was granted citizenship and he moved to Iceland. While there, he stayed away from the public’s eye.

Bobby Fischer died alone in Reykjavik on January 17th, 2008, due to renal failure. After his death, his estate—valued at about $2 million—was immediately the subject of a legal battle by numerous people who laid claim to it.

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